Ben Folds is best known for his 1997 song “Brick,” in which he took earnestness to the nth degree — so much so that it became an in-joke. In a 2016 episode of dark sitcom You’re The Worst, Folds shows up as a fictionalized version of himself, one who’s a little too enthusiastic to jam at a memorial service. The gag is that he doesn’t think any of the guests know what “Brick” is about, that he’s imparting on them some deep secret — they all roll their eyes as they respond “abortion.”
Everyone knows the story behind “Brick” at this point. In high school, Folds impregnated his girlfriend — and abortion was the young, irresponsible couple’s only recourse. The result was his signature song. But we still don’t know exactly how Folds got so honest, so unflinching. “I never intended to have these moments in my songwriting career that were that… out there, from my personal life,” he tells TIDAL. “But if I want the song, if I want the cookie, I’ve got to be honest.”
Now, Folds is laying it all bare as to how to write an honest song — and the life circumstances that he still uses as grist for the mill. His new memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons, out July 30, traces his upbringing in 1970s North Carolina, the rise of his band, Ben Folds Five, and how he’s still learning to write songs from an essential place of truth.
“It didn’t kill me to be honest in [“Brick”], he says. “Maybe it works in real life.” With the unflinching Lightning Bugs, he’s putting that maxim to work. Below, check out a conversation with Folds about facing down gnarly memories, the 1990s music scene as compared to 2019, and how writing a memoir is the next step in his quest for honesty.
In A Dream About Lightning Bugs, we spend a lot of time in ratty classrooms and entry-level jobs. Why did you choose to highlight humdrum scenes rather than gloss over them?
Well, it’s the way that happened, for one. Secondly, I think everyone benefits from seeing an honest view of how one person did it. You might read the next one and see that someone grew up in some other way. It’s a little bit of an ethnographic backdrop. This is my version of how creativity happens. But don’t take it from me; here are things that may have influenced the way that I see things, and therefore the way I regurgitate them creatively.
You say early on that certain songs help you have an extra-sharp recall of very specific memories. What do you hope your music evokes in people who have been listening since the beginning?
People tell me all the time that my music reminds them of one thing or another. Sometimes, they say it reminds them of the birth of their kid, and their kid’s 20 years old. Freak out! Music definitely brings up associative memories. It’s an honor to be a backdrop or a soundtrack of any way in someone’s life.
I didn’t realize the power of that until we landed in Japan very early on, and there were all these Japanese kids singing my songs. I was like, ‘They’re growing up in this environment that I really don’t know that much about, and the notes I made up are part of their memories? That’s amazing!’ Hopefully, they’re good memories, but you never know.
You went through some rough stuff, from a car accident to a girlfriend’s abortion. Did you decide early on in your music career that you’d tackle gnarly topics with humor and wit?
Nah, I just really wanted to write good songs. And you can feel how much better a song can be sometimes when it has the momentum of truth behind it. Once you’ve done that and it’s a good song, it’s hard to take back. You can change a couple of names to protect the innocent, or change anything you want. It’s creative. But the feeling behind it should be honest. And it’s easier to do that if you’re evoking your own memories.
I never intended to have these moments in my songwriting career that were that… out there, from my personal life. It’s just that when it happened, I found it was an effective song, and I realized that I had to suck it up and let it out there. The song ‘Brick,’ the more watered down it was to protect myself from looking bad, [the worse it got]. So I had to be honest. It didn’t kill me to be honest in the song. Maybe it works in real life.
Do you ever start writing a song and scrap it because it doesn’t have that thrust of truth to it?
No, I never start on a song like that. It doesn’t occur to me. ‘Brick’ was just started with notes. It’s just, what do these notes mean? And as you start to uncover what they mean, you go, ‘Ah, fuckin’ shit. That happened in my real life and I didn’t want to talk about that.’ But if I want the song, if I want the cookie, I’ve got to be honest.
You subtitled your book after a chapter on ‘cheap lessons,’ mistakes with little consequence that are teaching tools. Any cheap lessons you’ve encountered recently?
They’re mostly adjustments these days. An adjustment is a cheap lesson. Like, if you’re driving a car and you don’t want to drive into a ditch, you make an adjustment. A child doesn’t really realize how horrible running over the wrong thing can be. As an adult, hopefully you’re careful because you learned a cheap lesson.
Lately, I started this Patreon site and redid it the way you’re supposed to. I was letting my fans have tiers. I quickly learned that I needed to adjust that. It was feeling very classist, where if you paid more, you had access to this, and if you paid less, you had fewer things. It just felt like too many classes. It didn’t feel like a big happy group.
So I adjusted that. Now, I see that if I stuck with the tiers, I would have made more money, but I think I’d have a cheap lesson coming in the way of someone being upset or people disconnecting from it. Maybe just dissonance between people in two different tiers.
That’s a real small one. It’s the only one I can think of right now. I haven’t made an album in four or five years, so it’s hard. I’ve just been touring. Maybe someday that’ll become a cheap lesson. But it’s really for kids who are taking wild swings.
Later on, you talk about being embroiled in a major label bidding war, which was common in the 1990s but feels prehistoric for an alternative act today. What do young artists deal with now instead?
The bidding war represents a moment where it’s very fresh and new and there’s a lot of excitement. That still exists. Sometimes it can be someone who was discovered over the Internet, or blew up for some reason related to a news site. There are artists still who are living on a loan; they haven’t made it, but everyone knows who they are. It’s hard when you do it that way. That’s where we were going with it.
If you’ve been touring for five years like we were, great! You’re ready for it. Whatever happens, you can take it. But you’re a YouTube star, like these kids who were starting in the 2000s, they don’t know how to do anything! As soon as the clicks go down, they’re fucked. That’s their version of a bidding war. The difference is that you want to enter these situations ready.
If someone makes it big like Kendrick Lamar did, he could back it up. He’d been doing it for a while. He’d done it plenty. He had a mentor, everyone was [in his corner], he was moving. But with a lot of rappers that come up, they have to move really fast. They get thrown off the bull, fast.
The entire book is colored by your awe and respect of artists — of any stripe. What does this mean in our era of piracy, in which the value of creators feels more diminished than ever?
Well, there’s a diminished market value. The market’s all upside down. Take something like a garbage man, a sanitation worker. Those guys go on strike, we’re fucked. We’ve got to have garbage moved out, and yet they are making far less than a lot of other people, when you think about things you actually really need that day to survive.
Those of us who do those jobs are paid less. I’m paid more! And you don’t need me. So I don’t cry for the artist in that way. What I’m more concerned about is the perceived value of art in our culture and civilization, and the way it affects the greater economy, the greater good.
We are nowhere without ideas and creativity, and yet we’ve decided that the spiritual value is very little. People need ideas. I guess that’s where I’m coming from. Like I said, you don’t need me… but you do!
(Photo credit: Joe Vaughn)